Sport on TV: Jack on the box, carnage on the carpet

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The Independent Online
SCENES of unparalleled violence and aggression in Preston this week - as only to be expected during the World Indoor Championship Bowls (BBC 2, daily). There they sat, three bowls, quietly nested around the jack, points in the bag for Andy Thomson, you thought. But no. Things were about to get ugly.

'You can't reckon without Willie Wood,' growled Jimmy Davidson, our man carpet-side. Wood, his kindly grey head and gentle manner concealing the mind and demeanour of a ruthless destroyer, crouched at the mat and let fly. It seemed to bounce part of the way down. Also to give off smoke. And it was doing 90mph and whining before it disappeared on impact in a carnage of bowls and officials scattering for cover. 'Strong-arm tactics]' cried Davidson, enjoying himself a bit too much for my liking.

That's what this wild game is about, though: if you can't beat 'em, bust 'em. 'When you hit a bunch of bowls as hard as that, you can never predict what's going to happen,' Davidson explained. It put a whole new spin on the Walter Raleigh myth: he wasn't fiddling coolly on the cliff-top as those boats filled the horizon - he was psyching himself up for what lay ahead, using the adrenalin-

boosting, nerve-searing, isotonic sugar-rush which is bowls.

What you've got to be afraid of in these circumstances, from a safety point of view, is that the energy generated on the playing area is going to spread inexorably outwards and set off the crowd, soccer- style. To judge by the lack of suitably armed stewards and policemen (let alone dogs and horses) caught by the cameras, I'm not sure the Guild Hall was ready for all possible outcomes. True - again, judging from the televised audience shots - the average age of those paying their way into the brightly lit arena this week has been approximately 73. But a bowls crowd is a tinder-dry bonfire just waiting for a spark to set it off, and who knows what mayhem could have ensued in the event of, say, a marginal umpiring call or another one of Wood's whammers. (And this was just a singles match: calculate again for the white-hot intensity of doubles.)

Whatever, it's a pleasure to be able to report an absence of taunting and racist abuse emanating from the seating, precious little in the way of Mexican waves, absolutely no evidence of face-painting and little call for the whistles and glow- in-the-dark necklaces on sale (presumably) in the foyer. In a way which restored one's faith, here was a wide cross-section of the public, gathered peacefully to enjoy a sporting occasion as a sporting occasion.

What they (and we at home) got was high-calibre bowls from a dream line-up of top pedigree bowlers - bowling's king prawns: there was Thomson, wild man Wood, triple champion and bookies' favourite Richard Corsie, and 'big' Steve Rees, the Swansea postman ('renowned for his calm, drawing skills', David McGill informed us menacingly, 'but he can be riled').

The excitement took many forms. There were occasions, for instance, when the man with the tape measure had to check the distances between bowls three times before announcing the scorer. And Corsie works for the GPO just like 'big' Steve, allowing Davidson to become warm and glowing, during the semi-finals, over the possible prospect of an 'an all-Post Office final'. ('First-class delivery there from Andy Thompson,' said McGill, picking up the metaphor and running with it rather needlessly.)

Yes, there was a vocabulary to learn before you could understand how a player could get one turn out of the short bowl, wide of the head, on a three- quarter length jack. But the clarity of the BBC's presentation was exemplary - offering little inset pictures of the bowlers standing still or running after their balls, and also those computerised chalk lines, indicating possible bowling paths. (Mostly these informed you that the bowl was likely to come down the carpet, rather than being bounced in off the retaining wall, but sometimes there was a more detailed narrative at stake.) There were even poignantly picked slow- motion action replays (or they may have been replays in real time; it was a bit hard to tell). And, of course, here's another game in which the phrase 'end- to-end stuff' takes on a special resonance. Plenty here, then, for your own personal video reel of great bowling moments.

One technical point: the game seems to me to be making life altogether harder for itself because of a mix-up over relative ball-sizes. Easier, surely, to try and hit one of the big ones with the small one?

Surveying Sheffield Wednesday v Manchester United (The Match Live, ITV, Wednesday), curmudgeonly old Kevin Keegan, up in the commentary box, offered the opinion that Ryan Giggs still has a lot to learn. Certainly. And if Shakespeare would only put some time and effort in, he could turn himself into a lovely little writer. Some people are never happy.

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